Like so many things, it started with Die Hard. At a preview event on Wednesday, Square Enix executive producer Naoto Sugiyama told me that the seed of inspiration that would grow into the game Murdered: Soul Suspect was planted when the game's creative director, Yosuke Shiokawa, was watching the 1988 action classic. The film's hero, John McClane, will seemingly stop at nothing to thwart the criminals who have taken over Nakatomi Plaza and rescue his wife and the other hostages in the process. But what if McClane got killed, Shiokawa wondered? Would he stop then? What if McClane's determination were so strong that not even death could stop him from accomplishing his goal?
True to this inspiration, Murdered: Soul Suspect began its development as a much more action-focused game than what it is today. But as Sugiyama told me, the narrative hook, the idea of a detective trying to solve his own murder, seemed so interesting that it only made sense to bring that to the forefront of the game and let players experience that investigation for themselves. So now, that investigation is the focus of the game. Having just been rudely murdered by a killer whose attack sends him plummeting out of a fourth-floor apartment, the now-ghostly Salem, Massachusetts, cop Ronan O'Connor cannot move on from this world and be reunited with his beloved (and similarly deceased) Julie until he has resolved the business of his own unsolved murder.
Sugiyama said that some people accuse the developers of copying the conceptually similar game Ghost Trick, but in fact Murdered has been in development since well before Ghost Trick's release. The game I played at the event reminded me more of L.A. Noire than of Capcom's colorful adventure game. Ronan may be a modern-day cop, but he has an old-fashioned sense of style, and the investigations I spent most of my time engaged in felt similar to the crime scene investigations in Team Bondi's 2011 game. However, Ronan's status as a member of the recently deceased gives him a few abilities that L.A. Noire's Cole Phelps could only dream of using.
For one thing, unlike Cole Phelps (and, you know, real people), Ronan is no longer impeded by walls. You can walk right through them as you poke around any interior. You can't walk through just any wall in the game, though, and just as I was wondering why, the game presented me with its narrative justification for this gameplay limitation. Not long after being killed, you meet a young woman whose clothing tells you that either she was killed while rehearsing for a high school production of The Crucible or her spirit has actually been lingering in Salem since the witch trials of the late 17th century. She explains that spirits can't pass through the exterior walls of any building that the people of Salem have consecrated. Once you get in, though, through an open door or window or other opening, you can laugh in the face of every wall you meet.
So, playing through an early investigation in the game, I wandered freely around the apartment in which I'd been attacked, looking for evidence that would help me piece together the killer's intentions. The question I was there to answer, "Why was the killer here?" hovered in blue letters in the center of the apartment. Using my reveal ability, fragments of ghostly figures could be filled out to reveal moments from the past, and I soon found ethereal images lingering in the apartment of the killer stalking a teenage girl who might have witnessed him committing an earlier murder. Solving the investigation was then a matter of answering the question "Why was the killer here?" by selecting the most relevant clues (the searching killer, the hiding witness) from among all the clues I'd found at the scene.
Ronan also has the ability to pop into people's bodies and listen to their thoughts, or try to influence those thoughts by planting images taken from clues he's discovered. I needed to use this technique to solve an optional side investigation; the spirit of a young woman who had been murdered couldn't move on from this world until she learned what had become of her body. By planting a thought of the young woman in the mind of a grumpy old man who lived in a nearby apartment, I got him thinking about the night that his wife, furious at the noise that the young woman and her partying friends were making, flew off the handle and attacked the victim. Then I popped into his wife's body and planted a thought of the attack in her head, which led to her spilling the beans--as part of her internal monologue--about what had become of the young woman's body. Now that's what I call good police work.
If Murdered: Soul Suspect can consistently use sound logic in its investigations, and can fashion the process of piecing together the details of Ronan's murder into a satisfying mystery tale, Airtight Games and Square Enix could be on to something here. The gameplay felt a bit rough to me; button prompts to uncover clues were sometimes finicky, causing me to miss important details at times even though I'd been standing very close to them. But it's good to see a major release on the horizon that owes a great deal to point-and-click adventures and that's more interested in engaging your mind than your reflexes. I'm looking forward to uncovering more of its mysteries when the game is released in June.